Fast track, which would limit Congress' ability to amend agreements made between the president and foreign leaders, has been one of the top priorities for the Bush administration. American manufacturers and farmers say fast track is key to opening foreign markets. In 1998, environmentalist and labor advocates stymied the fast-track bill, arguing that it would lead to treaties that ignore environmental concerns and worker protections.
The story is different in 2002. The bill cleared the House of Representatives, and passed the Senate last week. Both Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray voted for the bill.
Cantwell's support of fast track is no doubt rooted in her high-tech background. American technology companies have long sought passage of fast track to gain access to international markets.
Activists like Jeremy Simer of the Stop Fast Track Coalition, however, say the bill is "trading away our democracy." Simer is also upset with Murray for bailing on the Democratic Party. "Her vote couldn't have come at a worse time," he says. "Congress is not just handing these new powers over to any president, they're handing them over to President Bush. For our Democratic senators to help out Bush in his power grab is unacceptable."
Adding insult to injury, Cantwell gave free traders an additional victory last week, helping to vote down progressive reforms to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Democrats, led by presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tried to change parts of NAFTA that give corporations authority to sue governments if localities pass laws that restrict trade between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The most egregious example of one of these "corporate" lawsuits involves a multibillion-dollar Canadian suit against California for outlawing the gas additive MTBE. MTBE was banned by California in 1998 because it was found to be poisoning the water supply. The Canadian Methanex Corporation is challenging the California law, calling it a violation of NAFTA.
Despite Cantwell's latest free-trade voting record, fair trade activists won a small victory Thursday. Cantwell agreed to meet Simer's contingent during Congress' summer recess.
Though the bill has cleared both the House and the Senate, a conference committee must still try to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
"This fight isn't over," Simer says.